Since I'd forgotten my gym clothes at home, I figured a movie night was in order and rushed across town to see Noah Baumbach's new film The Squid and the Whale. I've been a Baumbach fan since his clever romantic comedy Mr. Jealousy, so expected great things. On top of that, the trailer had really sucked me in a month or so back and the film's gotten some good reviews.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, the movie offers some heart-wrenching moments, witty lines and impressive acting. Jeff Daniels is completely disarming and charming as a gruff, lazy, bearded bear of a past-his-glory-days writer. He really steals the film with the hilarious, low-energy emotional force field that emanates from his corduroy-sleeved self. The two boys who play Daniels' teen and pre-teen sons, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, are terrific, as well. Very believable in very challenging parts. Laura Linney, as the mom, just does her usual plain Jane schtick, but she's fine. Interestingly enough, both parents are asses, but only Daniels' character is likeable in spite of that fact. The only sign that Linney's character is a nice person at all are the odd, food-related pet names she calls her children. Mkay.
The movie is about a family going through a divorce. It pointedly illustrates how kids are left to survive the shambles their selfish parents leave in their wakes. Baumbach, who based the story on his own childhood experiences, doesn't miss a detail in the fallout--from the kids' curious coping mechanisms to the parents' bumbled handling of just about everything.
Baumbach's got "real" nailed and deserves accolades for that. It is no easy feat to pull off a family drama so pitch-perfectly. It's just the structure that's lacking and, sadly, the lack of it drags the film down from the cresting waves of instant classic to murky almost-greatness. If I may be so wordplay-ey, it feels as if another audience must've gotten joint custody of the plot.
I wish Baumbach would have hammered out his script with more of the "big picture" story arc in mind, because his remarkable characters, actors and dialogue deserve a stronger structure to showcase their brilliance. Maybe Noah's been hanging out with (as much as I love him) Wes "Set Piece" Anderson too much.
And, an open note to all filmmakers, please don't drop your film title into your dialogue with lead weights attached and then end the movie with a lead character staring at the subject of the title and then abruptly throw up a title card reiterating the name of the movie one millisecond later. Please? Thanks in advance.